In 1936, Margaret Mitchell published her popular version of aristocratic life in the antebellum South that the Civil War essentially shattered, only to be resurrected in a different guise through true grit and determination.
“Gone with the Wind” won the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel of 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. Two years later, Hollywood turned this story of triumph, tragedy and rebirth into a blockbuster film that has stood the test of time.
While most Americans are at least generally familiar with “Gone with the Wind” in either book or movie format, few would recognize Ellen Douglas Bellamy’s counterpart story of lost dreams and bitter feelings generated as a result of our mid-19th-century cataclysm. Unlike Margaret Mitchell’s theme of overcoming adversity, Bellamy wrote a memoir that cast blame on those villains who caused her idyllic lifestyle in a slave-owning family to cease to exist.
In “Back with the Tide,” which she began composing on April 26, 1937, at age 85, Bellamy disavows intent on her part to emulate “Gone with the Wind,” which was published a year earlier. She explains that she was 9 years old when “The War” erupted in 1861, “but those years are so vividly impressed on my memory I often go over them during the wakeful hours of the night.”
Not unlike the magnificent plantation house Tara belonging to the fictional O’Hara family in “Gone with the Wind,” the Bellamys had built the finest home in Wilmington, N.C., in classic plantation architectural design.
Bellamy’s father, John D. Bellamy, who had been a medical doctor, gave up his profession to enter the more lucrative realm of life as a planter. As Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. points out in a foreword to Bellamy’s memoir, John Bellamy owned thousands of acres of land in both North and South Carolina.
In a perspective on her memoir, John H. Haley surmises that she wrote them for “survivors and descendants of [the antebellum planter elite] in the hopes of reconnecting them to a mythic past.” In other words, this was “a belated lament for the passing of a way of life in the antebellum South.”
In actuality, Ellen Bellamy spent little time at the Bellamy home during the war years, because conditions in Wilmington — a prosperous port town on the Cape Fear River — deteriorated when various types of schemers and profiteers arrived to take advantage of the good fortune that abounded. To avoid the riffraff, as well as the yellow fever that broke out in 1862, the Bellamys “refugeed” at a little village called Floral College in Robeson County, about 95 miles west of Wilmington.
Bellamy and her family were at home in Wilmington toward the end of the war when a combined Union naval and infantry attack captured Fort Fisher, which defended Wilmington, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 22, 1865, the city itself fell. The Union command immediately commandeered Dr. Bellamy’s fine mansion as a headquarters for its occupation forces.
Ellen Bellamy’s memoir, which occupies a mere 40 printed pages, relates how “galling” it was to have their home taken from them by the Yankees and their “‘carryings on’ in [her] lovely house.” She was outraged that her father had to travel to Washington after the war to seek a pardon in order to regain possession of the home.
“For what?” she questioned. “For being a Southern Gentleman, A Rebel, and a large Slave Owner!” In her mind, it was her father who was justified: “The slaves he had inherited from his father, and which he considered a sacred trust. Being a physician, he guarded their health, kept a faithful overseer to look after them … and employed a Methodist minister … to look after their spiritual welfare.”
Far from being reconstructed, Ellen Bellamy lived out her life with residence in the mansion. On April 23, 1940, she closed her memoirs with further explanation that, “I have written this for fear some of these days this old home might be burned or pulled down to be replaced by business houses or something else.” Fortunately, that did not happen. Instead, it has become the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design Arts.
Ellen Douglas Bellamy survived until Jan. 30, 1943, and passed away at age 92. Janet K. Seapker edited these memoirs, which are for sale at the museum. The magnificent Bellamy home is open to the public, as is the former slave quarters to the rear of the mansion.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.